My 70.3 Ironman World Championship Experience

You learn a lot about yourself when you put your physical and mental being at risk; when you push yourself beyond your limits both internally and externally. 

There are few events that challenge you in this way that are quite as grueling as an Ironman. The 70.3—though half the distance of a full Ironman—is an incredible feat, comprising of a back-to-back 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike, and a 13.1-mile run.

Two days ago, I raced among the globe's greatest triathletes at the 70.3 Ironman World Championship at Mooloolaba, Australia's Sunshine Coast. Yes, World. Championship. 3,000 athletes representing 83 countries. I'm talking the best of the best. Bulging calf muscles, washboard abdomen, intimidating bikes, and inspiring dedication to routine and structure. Though I played a part in this event via a roll down process (I was second in my age group at last year's Augusta, GA 70.3, just one slot away from legitimately "qualifying"), I felt worthy to be here. Although I didn't have the same coaching or multi-thousand dollar equipment to prove my value, I believed in my natural ability and my focus. 

I woke up at 3:30 a.m., because nerves wouldn't allow me to sleep any longer. I had to pump up my bike tires and do one last run-through of the transition area prior to 6 a.m., at which time the transition area closed. (This kind of threw me off a bit, seeing that my wave wouldn't go off until 8:15. It was a lot of waiting around, only intensifying nerves!)

Race morning started with a swim in the crystal ocean, just off the Sunshine Coast. A mass start almost guarantees a few immediate kicks in the face, and with an elite group of athletes, I didn't expect things to eventually space out. I knew I'd be crowded in a pack pretty much the entire time. There were several jabs to my nose and goggles, an attempt to swim over me at a tight corner turn, and a moment in which someone yanked my leg backwards underwater. Additionally, the ocean started to get a bit choppier on the way back, and I swallowed several mouthfuls of saltwater. Yet, despite these challenges, I remained surprisingly calm and simply focused on how beautiful the sea was; how tranquil the waves were in contrast to previous days; how immensely proud of myself I was to be swimming neck-in-neck with some of the best 18-29-year-old females in the world. I came out of the water with a much slower time than normally, but I felt strong and confident going into T1. 

The transitions themselves were pretty intense. Unlike any other race I've done, there were bag drops and changing zones. I'm used to merely having one central transition area where I keep all my gear. This time around, I had to locate my bike gear bag, run with it to a changing area, continue to my racked bike, and proceed to the mounting area (probably at least a quarter mile long, finishing with an uphill)...in bike shoes...which feels like running in high heels. (My first transition alone was over 6 minutes.)

Then I was off, for what was a challenging 56 miles through stunning Australian countryside. Though the wind pushed against me practically the entire ride, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for having the chance to cycle safely through such gorgeous scenery. Wildflower fields, views of far-off mountains, farmland, and glimpses of the ocean surrounded me.

Then came the hills. Keep in mind, this is the World Championship, so of course it's going to be hard. Harder than usual, that is. I'd heard of the infamous "hinterland hills on Rosemount Road" but wow, my expectations were superseded. This beast was a set of three immediate, sharp inclines that reached up to 25 percent grade steepness. Even the most badass athletes were dismounting to walk. After pumping my legs up the first two portions, I decided to get off and walk the final climb. (After all, walkers were actually going faster than cyclists on the first two gos!) I was worried that walking a crazy steep hill in cycling shoes would do funny things to my legs mid-race, but it felt remarkably refreshing to stretch my back and regather my thoughts. 

This sport is so much more mental than physical, and during these kinds of self-defeating moments it's easy to become hyperaware of your pains and weaknesses and beat up yourself on any personal disappointments. To continue on with hope is an accomplishment in itself! I made it to the top, took a deep breath, and kept riding.

During any moment of fear or worry, I repeated to myself Phil4:13's, "I can do all things through Christ" and the word "Trust" over and over again. "Trust, trust, trust" is my mantra. I even say it out loud on occasion. I pray...a lot. And I find that this sport brings me closer and closer to God. I can literally feel His presence around me, keeping me safe and encouraging me to fight the good race, pushing myself in what He's created me capable of doing. (I prayed for no shark attacks, no flat tires, and the strength to finish what He'd planned for me that day. Check, check, check!)

Entering the run, my legs were exhausted. "Trust, trust, trust." Despite feeling hella pumped, I pulled off a 7.20-25/ mile pace for the first three miles. From there, I could feel my quads twitching and begging for me to stop. I understood that my body and my heart were at war with one another. And it was a gory, brutal battle. (During a half Ironman race in Nashville in 2014 I rode an equally insane bike course, which I didn't "ride smart" and screwed myself over for the run. I ended up collapsing three miles before the finish, feeling like concrete was being pumped into my left calf. I basically ran-walk-limped the entire half marathon and barely crossed the finish line that day. For this reason the pain in my quads was, hauntingly familiar.) I continued on, fighting back tears, saying "good job" to everyone I passed, as well as everyone who passed me, as I've learned that sportsmanship is so beneficial not only to other athletes, but to self. 

By mile 8 of the run, my quads were done. Checked out. Adios. BYE. My thighs hated me. I could feel the paralysis take over, and I physically could not continue running. Not only did they burn; they felt like bricks so tight and tense that I literally could not move them. I ran-walked the final five miles, bringing my overall pace down to about 8.20/mile. It's as though my legs were stuttering, incapable of performing. I stopped for a moment to massage them and gulp down salt tabs, all while they continued spazzing and aching as though someone had cut into my muscles, put golf balls inside them, beaten the golf balls into me, lit a fire to my insides, and stitched me up. 

My body had surrendered, but my mind had not. 

As soon as I crossed the finish line, I collapsed and was put into a wheelchair. An official brought me icy water and sprayed magnesium under my tongue to help with the cramps. Thankfully minutes later, I was able to get up and limp my way to the recovery tent. 

While those final moments of the race were far from even the endurance "Type 2 Fun", the overall experience was beyond incredible. I had an amazing time meeting athletes from all over the world who share my passion, taking in the urban and remote vistas of Australia, and competing in the activity I've fallen head over heels in love with.

When I compete, I overcome. This sport as taught me so much about motivation, determination, willpower, faith, trust, stamina, grit, ecstasy, pride, humility and everything in between. While I didn't make my best time, I conquered. And I am a World Champion.

(Story from her blog. Check it out at olivia-lee.org)

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